Changing the Higher Ed Conversation: TC’s Community College Research Center celebrates 20 years of transformative research
When the Community College Research Center (CCRC) was formed in 1996 at Teachers College, little was known about how well two-year colleges served their students and whether they were fulfilling their mission to educate everyone who came through their doors.
The colleges were created to educate the booming generations after World War II but even through the 1990s they generally remained an afterthought in the national conversation about higher education, which often focused on the Ivy League and other elite colleges and universities and on battles around hot-button issues like affirmative action.
CCRC, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, stepped in and helped broaden that conversation to include community colleges, first by documenting and drawing attention to central problems such as the low graduation rates at these institutions and, eventually, by addressing nearly all the central issues affecting the education of community college students. (Click here to view CCRC’s 20-year timeline.)
Community colleges have been propelled into the national spotlight by issues of student debt and the need for a better-prepared workforce. President Obama’s proposal for free community college and the platform of the current presidential campaign have further raised their profile.
“Jesse Ausubel from the Sloan Foundation had the insight that formed the foundation of CCRC, which was that nearly a majority of undergraduates are at community colleges, yet only a minuscule share of research on higher education was devoted to these colleges,” said CCRC Founding Director Thomas Bailey, TC’s George & Abby O’Neill Professor of Economics & Education, at a panel dedicated to CCRC’s anniversary at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges in Chicago in April. “Moreover, community college students are disproportionately low-income, minority, immigrant, and first-generation college students who in the past have fared relatively poorly in college. So these are the types of students that policy and research should be concerned with.”
"Nearly a majority of undergraduates are at community colleges, yet only a minuscule share of research on higher education was devoted to these colleges. Moreover, community college students are disproportionately low-income, minority, immigrant, and first-generation college students who in the past have fared relatively poorly in college. So these are the types of students that policy and research should be concerned with.” —CCRC Founding Director Thomas Bailey, TC’s George & Abby O’Neill Professor of Economics & Education
Today CCRC is an organization with more than 50 staff members and affiliates, and community colleges have been propelled into the national spotlight by issues of student debt and the need for a better-prepared workforce. President Obama’s proposal for free community college and the platform of the current presidential campaign have further raised their profile.
“Community colleges don’t need to struggle so much now to get people to pay attention to them,” Bailey said.
That change has also been occasioned by access to a wealth of new data. In 2000, the federal government first released the disturbing news about community college graduation rates—and even today only about 40 percent of first-time community college students complete a two- or four-year degree within six years. A few years later, CCRC research on remedial education—coursework intended to help students improve their skills and prepare them for college-level work—showed that many students were getting stuck in the courses and never earning degrees.
“Do you remember the reaction of the presidents in the room when you presented this data?” Kay McClenney, a nationally known reform leader and founder of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, asked Bailey at the April event. “They did not want to hear about it.”
Research also revealed that broad but piecemeal efforts to improve outcomes for students weren’t making a dent in overall graduation numbers, signaling that a more fundamental restructuring was needed. CCRC researchers continue to argue the way colleges are organized keeps students from graduating or transferring. Instead of a clear path toward a goal, the colleges offer vast numbers of choices, leaving students confused and wandering. Many drop out or take years to graduate.
CCRC research has shown the staggering inaccuracy of the tests community colleges typically use to determine if students are ready for college-level courses or need remedial help. At one college in New York, 36 percent of students are placed into remedial math who don’t need it.
“I think that was another crucial insight,” Bailey said. “Why do you have this widespread reform without any major progress?”
These early CCRC findings have sparked a much more comprehensive reform movement that is tackling everything from remedial education to advising to the overall structure of community colleges, using a model known as Guided Pathways. Drawing on years of research, Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars (Research Affiliate), and Davis Jenkins (Senior Research Associate)—all from CCRC—came out in 2015 with the book Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success, which argues for restructuring colleges to create clear programs of study that are tied explicitly to career and transfer goals, with stronger supports to help students choose and stay on a path. The book has become a guiding text of the community college reform movement and is being read at colleges around the country.
This coming fall, CCRC will cap its 20th anniversary celebration year with an event at TC. Meanwhile, its researchers believe there’s much more work to be done to improve the Guided Pathway model, test what works and what doesn’t, and help colleges figure out the best way to implement reforms.
“I think our role now is to say how do we refine that,” Bailey said. “What aspects of that work and don’t work, how do we move that forward, and what exactly is the effect that that has on colleges—and more importantly, on students?”
– Elizabeth Ganga
The Leader in the Field
CCRC’s research contributions over the years are too numerous to list in full, but among the biggest have been:
- A 2014 study on the impact of performance funding of community colleges at the state level.
- A 2013 study documenting the need for simplification of the financial aid process.
- A landmark study in 2008 that found that fewer than half of all students complete their assigned sequence of developmental courses.
- The first rigorous studies of dual enrollment and the transition from high school to college.
- A major study in 2011 on the strengths and weaknesses of online learning.
Today CCRC examines the full spectrum of issues that impact the success of students at community colleges—from the high school-to-college transition to graduation and transfer to four-year colleges—as well as the economic benefits of various postsecondary credentials for students. Continuing research includes:
Multiple Measures Remedial Placement
CCRC research has shown the staggering inaccuracy of the tests community colleges typically use to determine if students are ready for college-level courses or need remedial help. At one college in New York, 36 percent of students are placed into remedial math who don’t need it. As a replacement for the tests, CCRC is studying whether placement using several measures, including high school GPA, is more accurate than the tests. The “multiple measures” method is expected to reduce the placement of students into remedial courses and increase the number of students passing their first college-level English or math course.
Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success
Many colleges are implementing technology to help with scheduling, to track student progress, and to send alerts when students might need help, ideally taking pressure off advisors and enabling them to provide more in-depth college and career counseling. Colleges are now developing predictive analytics to decide when intervention is needed to keep a student from failing a course or dropping out. CCRC is investigating the impact of these technology-mediated advising reforms on the success of students.
Transfer to Bachelor’s Programs
In a partnership with the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, CCRC released a report in January showing that only 14 percent of first-time, degree-seeking community college students who started in 2007 transferred and earned a bachelor’s degree within six years. In even the best states only about one in five of the students earned a bachelor’s degree. A new report released in May looks at the practices of successful partnerships between two- and four-year colleges and offers recommendations for making it easier for students to transfer with junior standing in a major and without excess credits.
AACC Pathways Project
CCRC is participating in a project led by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to help 30 colleges in 17 states implement guided pathways for all their students over the next three years. The initiative requires colleges to restructure their programs of study, create program maps that clarify paths to degrees or transfer, and help students choose and stay on a pathway through improved advising and redesigned remediation. CCRC is helping to design and conduct the Pathways Institutes, which help to guide the work of the colleges, and will assess the effect of the reforms.
Media coverage about CCRC:
Published Monday, Jun 20, 2016